Papillion Monarchs - An Endangered Species

For decades, scientists had wondered what happened to the 300 million monarchs that vanished into Mexico every year. The mystery was solved when, between 1975 and 1985, thirteen monarch roosts were discovered. They were all in the same mountain range, scattered along a band 70 miles long and 35 miles wide that lies about 80 miles west of Mexico City. At these sites cool, moist air lowers the metabolism of the massed butterflies and helps preserve their energies for a spring sprint to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Massed so thickly they turn the gray-green forest orange, the weight of their numbers can break large branches. But the era of discovery gradually gave way to a time of gloom. Scientists learned that at every stage of its life cycle the existence of the monarch is threatened by a number of destructive forces — all of them unleashed by man.

Most monarch experts agree with Lincoln Brower, an entymologist at the University of Florida: "Unless the U.S., Canada, and Mexico take strong measures to protect this beautiful and fascinating creature, the whole eastern migration will collapse within ten years. There will soon be no more monarchs east of the Rockies."

It's hard to believe a species that has survived for perhaps 10 million years, a species still hardy and extravagantly numerous, could be so severely endangered. The monarch makes its home in a paradisal wilderness, a gentle eden of snow-crowned peaks and alpine forests that soar out of broad, quiet valleys patched with small farms and pretty villages. Visitors have called it the Shangri-La of Mexico. The monarch's sanctuaries, secluded in pathless woods at forbidding altitudes, stood undisturbed for thousands of years. And the monarch offers no cause for offense. On its windblown wanderings from flower to flower it gives nothing but pleasure and takes nothing but nectar.

In its long tenure on earth, this remarkable butterfly has evolved some ingenious strategies for self-preservation. To find its way back to the forests of Transvolcanica, the monarch has developed the most powerful homing instinct in the insect kingdom. Inexplicably, hundreds of millions fly from Canada to central Mexico and arrive right on target at the same stands of fir trees their grandparents left seven months before. To maintain its numbers the monarch has become exuberantly prolific. The female flutters from mate to mate until she is bulging with eggs — in less than a month she may lay as many as 400. To ward off predators she lays the eggs on milkweed, a plant that contains a toxin. Insensitive to the poison, the larvae gorge on milkweed leaves, and the poison passes through metamorphosis into the mature butterfly.

Birds that eat one monarch vomit violently and seldom eat another. But man, alas, is a predator the monarch cannot master. Automobiles smash millions of the creatures every year. Pesticides slaughter millions more by poisoning the water they drink. Herbicides sprayed on croplands to kill weeds destroy wildflowers, the monarch's main source of nectar. Worse yet, herbicides destroy milkweed, which provides monarch larvae with nourishment as well as protection.

All of these assaults the monarch has so far survived, but the Mexicans have mounted one that may prove fatal. Slash-and-burn farming techniques are prevalent in the Transvolcanica, and peasants attempting to create new croplands are constantly clearing away the forests where monarchs live. Bad enough. But during the 1980s lumber companies arrived to accelerate the pace of destruction. In 1991, loggers levelled one of the northern sanctuaries, and the logging areas are edging steadily toward those that remain. Environmental groups in Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. have protested. So have thousands of Mexicans who believe that the souls of the dead are reborn as zacuanpapalotl — the Aztec name for monarchs. The Mexican government has passed laws to protect the sanctuaries, but logging companies are poorly regulated and continue to clear-cut in buffer areas near the monarch sanctuaries.

Can the monarch be saved? Monarch lovers are making heroic efforts. In the U.S. they have persuaded seed companies to produce a "monarch mixture" of milkweed and wildflowers that thousands of schoolchildren plant in monarch meadows. In Mexico an organization called Monarca A.C., while badgering the government, has launched a massive program to reforest the clearcuts and create alternative income for farmers by teaching them to palnt fruit trees and grow chrysanthemums. Monarca has also promoted tourism at the sites. But the group's president, Carlos Gottfried, fears that such efforts may be too little and too late. "If we lose the monarch," he says, "we lose a link with something mysterious and everlasting. When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul is shaken and your life is changed."

— Brad Darrach, LIFE magazine, August 1993

Killer Lumberjacks

To regain protected forest land, loggers may have deliberately wiped out some 22 million Monarch butterflies which migrate annually to Mexico. Homero Aridjis, head of the environmental lobby Group of 100, told Reuters loggers were believed to have sprayed pesticide on the orange and black butterflies in order to regain some 216 square miles of forest declared protected by the government. "There has been a massive slaughter of the butterflies in two sanctuaries," Aridjis said. "This will affect the reproduction process completely. Now we don't know how many butterflies will come this autumn."

Millions of monarch butterflies migrate some 3,000 miles annually to flee the icy winter in Canada and the United States for the warmer fir forests in Mexico's central Michoacan state, some 70 miles west of Mexico City. For five months of the year, Michoacan's trees are turned a flaming orange and the forest is carpeted with the delicate winged creatures. The migration has taken place for the past 10,000 years, Aridjis said. The butterflies normally arrive in early November and return north at the end of March.

In November last year, the government of former President Ernesto Zedillo extended the land devoted to five sanctuaries. The move was in response to a study showing that farming and illegal logging had destroyed 44 percent of the original forest since 1971. Without drastic action, the study predicted the original forest would disappear in under 50 years.

"The new decree could have prompted this," Aridjis said. "If there are no butterflies they can claim the trees without problem."

Inspector Joel Rodriguez of the government environmental watchdog Profepa said, "We haven't ever registered people using pesticides. But it's one of the zones where they have the most illegal logging. It (the butterfly deaths) could also be a result of the freezing this winter which happens every four or five years."

The U.S.-based nonprofit group Packard Foundation donated more than $5 million to the Worldwide Fund for Nature to help the Mexican government rent or buy logging rights from local residents to compensate for lost income while developing alternative job sources. Aridjis said the loggers had targeted two sanctuaries —Cerro San Andres and Las Palomas— in the past two weeks.

"The wings of the butterflies found inert on the ground had a strange luster and there was a smell of pesticide and petrol in the sanctuaries," he said.

—Elizabeth Fullerton, Reuters, March, 2001